The other week I watched for the second time the 2015 TV film An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley, based on a play that revolves around the apparent suicide of a young woman called Eva Smith. As was the case when I first saw it, I found it gripping from beginning to end and that’s not just because it was filmed in Yorkshire and featured one of my favourite locations, Salt’s Mill in Saltaire Village, near Bradford.
It is set in 1912 when the unsuspecting and very wealthy Birling family are visited by a mysterious Inspector Goole. The family is headed by pompous factory owner Arthur Birling, who is hoping to get a knighthood, his snobbish wife Sybil and young son Eric who are celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to eligible Gerald Croft (rich, privileged and a member of the aristocracy), when the inspector calls.
The Inspector reveals that a girl called Eva Smith, has taken her own life by drinking disinfectant. The family are horrified but at first don’t understand why the Inspector has called to see them. What follows is a tense and uncomfortable investigation by an all-knowing Inspector through which the family discover that they are all in fact caught up in this woman’s death. This the inspector does by showing that each had, in their own way, contributed to her tragic end. Eva had been dismissed from work at the local textile factory owned by Arthur Birling, who sacks her for having organised a strike which the workers lose, or, in the young men’s cases, having sexual relationships and then abandoning her. I won’t tell you how it ends as I really recommend that you view it.
The play was first performed in the Soviet Union in 1945 and at the New Theatre in London the following year. The theatre, in Covent Garden was renamed the Gillian Lynne Theatre in 2018 after the English actress, ballerina, choreographer, dancer, and director who died later that year.
As it is set in 1912 it means that the characters have no knowledge of the world shattering events that took place over the following thirty plus years. Priestley uses this to make important points about society and responsibility.
Which brings me to Priestley himself. I first saw the play in the early 1960s performed by the St. Nicholas Players, an amateur group of players drawn from the local parish church in Sutton, Surrey, but did not understand its political significance, nor the politics of the Yorkshire playwright, who was also a novelist, screenwriter, broadcaster and social commentator.
Priestley was a founding member of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) in 1958 and well before then, in 1942, he co-founded the Common Wealth, of which more later. The political content of his war time broadcasts and his hopes of a new and different Britain after the war influenced the politics of the period and is said to have helped the Labour Party achieve its stunning landslide victory over Churchill and the Conservative Party in the 1945 summer general election.
Interestingly JB was named on George Orwell’s March 1949 list of people which he drew up for the Information Research Department (IRD), a propaganda unit at the Foreign Office set up by the Labour Government. Orwell considered or suspected people on it to have pro-communist leanings and therefore to be unsuitable to write for the Department whose mission it was to counter Soviet propaganda and infiltration. Although the existence of the department was supposed to be a secret, the USSR knew all about it as the Soviet agent Guy Burgess had been posted to IRD for two months in 1948 before being sacked for being “dirty, drunk and idle.”
The Common Wealth movement was founded in July 1942. It was a left social democratic organisation based on three principles: Common Ownership, Morality in Politics and Vital Democracy. It disagreed with the electoral pact established between the main political parties in the wartime coalition and began sponsoring independent candidates in by-elections. It had a number of successes including winning a seat in Skipton not far from my home in Settle, North Yorkshire.
In the 1945 general election voters deserted the movement in favour of Labour and they only hung on to Chelmsford, in Essex as the seat was not contested by Labour. The following year the organisation split with the majority joining the Labour Party. The organisation carried on as a pressure group, a shadow of its former self, and in 1992 members and supporters met in London for a 50th anniversary lunch. A year later the organisation wound up at a meeting in Cheltenham.
JB had a dark side. Despite being a progressive and a socialist, his attitude to the Irish was racist, associating them with ignorance, dirt and drunkenness, a view not uncommon at the time, but unacceptable in a person who believed in socialism, tolerance and decency.
Priestley died of pneumonia on 14 August 1984 and is buried in St. Michael and All Angels’ Church in nearby Hubberholme in North Yorkshire.